A much-needed, successful wolf collaring effort after a 'deadly' winter

By Austin Homkes

Wolf P2L, a yearling wolf from the Lightfoot Pack, as he recovers from being sedated.

The 2021-2022 winter was a deadly winter for our GPS collared wolves–Wolf V079 starved to death, Wolf V071 was killed by other wolves, and Wolf B1T was illegally shot. All 3 of these wolves were breeding animals, and we were planning on studying all of them starting April 15–the beginning of our intensive field season. To make matters worse, we had several collars deployed on wolves that malfunctioned and several others dropped-off of wolves as they were pre-programed to do. 

So, we started the 2022 field season with only 5 wolves wearing functioning collars. However, only 1 of these 5 wolves was a part of a pack; the other 4 were lone wolves wandering in and out of our study area and therefore were not helpful for our research. Combine this with a late start to our collaring efforts, because there was snow on the ground until early May, and the pressure was certainly on to collar wolves to study for the field season.

Tom Gable carrying Wolf V071, the breeding male of the Lightfoot Pack, out of the woods. V071 was killed by wolves in January 2022. Photo credit: Minneapolis Star Tribune/Anthony Souffle.

A much-needed fast start

We catch and collar wolves using rubber-padded foothold traps that have been modified for the safe capture and release of wolves for research (for more about this process, check out this recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune). Catching a wolf in this way can be a difficult and time-consuming endeavor mainly because wolves are smart. Sometimes we go weeks without collaring a wolf.

 

Our primary objective is to collar wolves in any newly-formed packs in our study area followed by wolves in packs where we no longer have functioning collars. Typically, we aim to have at least 1, and ideally 2, functioning collars in each of the packs we study. This seldom happens but is our goal.

We started our collaring efforts on May 7—22 days later than expected! Much to our excitement and relief, we collared 2 wolves on May 11, just 4 days into our collaring effort. The first wolf we collared was Wolf Y1T, the dominate male of the newly-formed Blood Moon Pack. Y1T and the Blood-Moon Pack took over the Moonshadow Pack territory around January 2022.

Austin Homkes recording data on a young wolf that was collared.

The second wolf we collared was Wolf P2L. When we collared P2L we scanned him to see if he had a PIT tag–a small microchip we insert into young pups, much like one does for a pet dog or cat–and to our astonishment he was indeed tagged. Turns out, P2L was a 1-year-old wolf born in the Lightfoot pack last spring (April 2021).

Just two days later, on May 13, Voyageurs Wolf Project history was made when we collared 3 wolves in a single day, something that has never happened on the project. The first 2 wolves we collared were Wolves Y2L and Y3S, a young female and mature male, respectively. Both of these wolves were collared in the Blood Moon territory.

The third wolf of the day was Wolf B2L, a young male, collared in the Bug Creek territory. Unfortunately, Wolves Y2L and Y3S both proved to be lone wolves in the following days and weeks and both have wandered in and out of the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem over the past 3 months. Wolf B2L, on the other hand, was part of the Bug Creek Pack, and was only the second wolf we had collared in that pack at that point. With 5 wolves collared in our first 6 days, we had nearly made up for our delayed start and rough winter.

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Wolf Y3S, an older lone wolf collared in Spring 2022.

Yearlings and siblings

With wolves collared in the Blood Moon, Lightfoot, and Bug Creek Packs, we turned our efforts towards the Wiyapka Lake Pack and the Paradise Pack—both packs without a collared wolf. The Wiyapka Lake Pack is notoriously challenging to collar because the majority of the territory is inaccessible and remote.

 

In 2021, we attempted to collar a wolf in that pack for 6 weeks without any success. Luckily, this year was a different story. After one day we were able to collar Wolf R1T, a yearling male in the pack, and less than a week later we collared R1T’s brother, who was dubbed Wolf R2L. Catching two siblings in a pack, born the same year, is rare for the project and has given us a unique view into how adult wolf siblings interact in a pack.

 

The breeding pair of the Paradise Pack, Wolves V077 and V085, are both wolves we have previously collared and studied. On May 24, we were able to collar one of their offspring born last year, Wolf W2L. W2L was the first pup produced by the Paradise Pack that we’ve collared as an adult.

Tom Gable taking a photograph of a wolf's teeth. We can determine the age of wolves based on how worn down their teeth are. Photo credit: Minneapolis Star Tribune/Anthony Souffle.

Around the same time, we turned our attention to the Lightfoot Pack–if the Lightfoot Pack was still intact. As mentioned above, the breeding male, Wolf V071, was killed by other wolves in late January. Much to our chagrin, trail camera data for the Lightfoot Pack after V071 died was poor and we had few observations of wolves in that territory. What had occurred in this territory after V071’s death? Had another pack taken over the territory, or had the other Lightfoot Pack members continued to maintain their territory?  

Unfortunately, collaring Wolf P2L earlier in the season did not answer many questions because P2L was moving around like a lone wolf, not staying in the Lightfoot territory. We needed a collar on whatever wolves now called the Lightfoot territory home to figure things out.    

As luck would have it, we caught 2 yearling wolves, Wolves B3S and B4D, in the Lightfoot territory on May 26 and 30. Wolf B4D was actually the sister and littermate of Wolf P2L as B4D had a pit-tag just like P2L. Wolf B3S was not PIT-tagged but we suspect she was a littermate of B4D and P2L given her age and the fact that all 3 wolves spent time with each other in June and July in the Lightfoot Pack territory. 

Notably, we were only able to tag 3 of the 5 pups in the Lightfoot Pack in 2021 and we suspect B3S was one of the untagged pups. With 3 Lightfoot siblings collared and 2 of them spending time exclusively in the Lightfoot territory, it became clear that the pack was still intact to some degree. The death of V071 had not totally broken up the pack.

A little bit of luck at the end

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Wolf B4D, a yearling wolf from the Lightfoot Pack that we micro-chipped as a pup in May 2021 and then collared in May 2022. Wolf B4D is one of 3 yearlings from Lightfoot Pack that we collared this spring.

By May 30, we had collared 10 wolves, of which 8 were part of packs we study (the other 2 were lone wolves). At that time, we started trying to collar a wolf in the Half Moon Pack, where we did not have a wolf collared, and the Windsong Pack, where we already had the breeding male V087 collared. It soon became clear that we had used up all of our luck in May and were not able to collar a wolf in either of these packs. After collaring 10 wolves in 23 days, we did not collar another wolf for 42 days. This was a blow to morale.

 

With our luck seemingly used up, we decided to end our collaring season by trying to collar an additional wolf in the Bug Creek and Bluebird Lake Packs. Both Bluebird Lake and Bug Creek were larger packs in Winter 2021-2022 and we thought our odds of getting a second collar in each pack were higher than other smaller packs we were studying. Our pivot to these packs paid off. 

 

On July 20, we collared Wolf V052 who we first collared as a yearling in 2016. V052’s collar quit working in late 2016 and we lost track of her. We learned from our trail camera data that V052 had become the breeding female of the Bluebird Lake Pack sometime between 2016 and 2021. Her mate was P0C who we collared the year before and still wore a functional collar. Collaring V052 was the cherry-on-top of a long but good effort, and we planned to end our collaring efforts the next day. To our astonishment, we collared another wolf the next morning, Wolf B5E, who was the breeding male of the Bug Creek Pack.

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A well-camouflaged collared wolf in fall.

Every collaring season is unique and memorable and the 2022 season proved to be no exception. In the span of 76 days we collared 12 wolves in 6 packs. Given our delayed start and our predicament at the start of the season, we consider this a very successful collaring season.

 

Yet, the real work only begins once a wolf is collared. Indeed, we spent most of our field season hiking thousands of miles through the dense Minnesota woods to study the wolves we collared. It is this annual dance of collaring and following that has allowed us to uncover novel and unique insights of wolves in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem.